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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Deepening Your Character’s Needs

When figuring out your story, you have to take into consideration who your characters are beyond their physical characteristics.  You need to know their backstories (which I’ll go into in an upcoming post) and their motivations (needs).
Knowing your characters’ needs helps you develop the story conflict. This might be external, with the clash of two characters’ goals and motivations. Or it could be internal, in which the character has to make a tough decision—possibly even a life-threatening one.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
But how do you know what your characters’ needs are? Well, this is where our good friend Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs comes into play.
As you can see in the above figure, the pyramid is divided into five levels. The needs on the bottom level (physiological) have to be satisfied before you can worry about those in the next level (safety and security). Same deal with the third level (love and belonging). The needs in the first two levels have to be dealt with first. This idea continues all the way to the top of the pyramid, to self-actualization.

Main Story Motivation
Maslow’s hierarchy can be used to determine your character’s overall motivation during the story. For example, the rebuilding of the character’s self-esteem after breaking free of an abusive relationship. In this example, the character has to progress through the other levels, especially safety, before she can reach her goal.

The Real Underlying Need
The pyramid also helps you unearth the real need. It’s so easy to pick the surface one, but you have to dig deeper. Okay, sure your character wants money. Heck, who doesn’t? But you need to ask yourself WHY. Is it because she needs a place to live (Safety)? Or maybe she has an apartment in New York City, but she wants something bigger, more prestigious, and she has an expensive taste in clothing and shoes. Why? Because she wants remind herself how far she’s come after living with an alcoholic parent and being bumped around foster homes as a teenager (Esteem). Now think of all the conflict possibilities you can create by messing around with her self-esteem: boyfriend problems; threat of losing her senior position at the law firm; the alcoholic parent becomes a news item, which puts the character’s secret past at risk of being exposed, something she doesn’t want to happen, at all costs. And don’t forget to throw in some conflict from the bottom levels of the hierarchy, too.

Scene-by-Scene Needs
The pyramid can be used to develop the scene-by-scene needs of the characters. But make sure the needs are believable for the given situation. I don’t care if the hot guy I’m with has his shirt off, and his bulging biceps and rippling pecs are glistening with sweat (not to mention the pheromones are flying something fierce), I’m not going to rip off my clothes and copulate with him on the cold warehouse floor if the bad guys are shooting at us. It’s just not going to happen. Even if Maslow claims my sex needs have to be fulfilled before I can seek safety. You may laugh, but agents and editors do receive submissions where this happens. Don’t be the writer who makes this mistake.

Now go back and make sure ALL your characters have motives for each scene and for the overall story arc. And see how you can deepen the conflicts by challenging your characters’ needs or by introducing opposing ones. Your story will be better for it.

Stina Lindenblatt writes romantic suspense and young adults novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog, Seeing Creative 


Laura Pauling said...

I'm with you. I don't know if I'd put sex in that bottom rung. I mean over the long haul, maybe. But in a crisis situation, I'm pretty sure water, food and shelter come first. Now, love - that is essential. But sex doesn't always mean love.

PM Taylor said...

Thanks for this post! Provides a great reference tool for use when going back through the revise, edit, polish process - thanks!

Best -


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this, Stina! Printing this one off to add to my binder.

Porter Anderson said...

This is useful, Stina, thanks, I hadn't thought of applying Maslow to character constructs. Looking forward to your backstories post, as well.

Erinn said...

Excellent-- WAY back in college while I was taking all my teaching courses we learn all about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and not once did I ever think about applying this to my own writing.
Who knew that college was useful?

She Wrote said...

Great tool. Good to use for "bad guys", too. Helps in developing motives as well as interesting characters to round out all of the players because no one acts alone.

Glenna F.

Angela Ackerman said...

Great job here, Stina. I'm always looking at how to understand my characters better, so this gave me a lot to chew on.

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Jean Reidy said...

It's been 25 years since I've seen Maslow's pyramid. What a great way to explore character motivations and goals on so many different levels. Thanks.

Shelby said...

This helped me this morning. Thank you.

Shelby said...

This helped me this morning. Thank you.

Christina Lee said...

OMG I haven't seen Maslow since my social work days. Great connection you made here, S!

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

For the people wondering why the heck "sex" is on the bottom level, it's actually there not because the individual can't go without sex (my students are disappointed to learn), but because if EVERYONE stopped having sex, the species would die out. Thus, it is considered a base survival priority. :)

Stina said...

Carolyn--I'm just waiting for that line to show up in books. "But dear, if we don't have sex, how is our species going to survive?" ;)

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

LOL. I'm sure more than a few people have gone home after a Maslow lecture and used that line, so why not in a book? ;-)

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

(I mean that humorously, guys. Don't really use it in a book!)